At the Dead Poets Society meeting that afternoon, Charlie, Knox, Meeks, Cameron, Todd, and Pitts go to the cave and read from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. Knox says that he feels as if he’ll die if he can’t get Chris to love him. The other members tell Knox that they feel as if they’ve never been alive at all—they’ve been sleepwalking through school, blindly obeying their parents’ directions. Charlie admits that he’s jealous of Knox’s love for Chris—at least Knox knows what he wants out of life.
Even though Knox talks about “dying for love,” the overall theme of this chapter is life, not death. The students feel that they’re coming alive for the first time, thanks to Keating’s energy and charisma. Encouraged to see the world with fresh eyes, they’re coming to realize how irrational and unfulfilling their parents’ expectations really are.
Charlie proposes that from now on, the cave should be a site for “experimentation”—everything that their parents and their teachers forbid them from doing in life. As the meeting ends, the Dead Poets return to their lives, ready to seize the day.
Out of all the Dead Poets, Charlie is arguably the most interested in rebellion—even rebellion for its own sake. He thinks that the Dead Poets should be trying new things in order to discover what they do and don’t like—hence the vital importance of experimentation.
The boys return to Welton just in time for soccer practice—which, to their surprise, will be coached by Mr. Keating. Mr. Keating begins to call roll, but then tears up the attendance sheet and tells the students, “You don’t have to be here if you don’t want to.” He leads the students to the soccer field, saying they can play if they want to play. On the soccer field, Keating passes out slips of paper with famous quotes written on them. One by one, the students are to shoot for the goal while reading their quote. The exercise continues until dark.
Knowing what we know about Keating’s classes, it’s no surprise that he runs his soccer practice so cavalierly. Keating is altogether against the idea of forcing students to act against their wills—therefore, he offers his students the freedom to do what they want during practice. (Keating’s behavior contrasts markedly with that of the Welton gym coach, who forced the Welton juniors to run non-stop).
Back in his dorm, Todd tries to write his poem, and becomes so frustrated with himself that he breaks his pencil. Neil bursts in—he’s gotten the part of Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The other boys cheer for Neil. Neil explains that he’ll need to write a letter of permission to Headmaster Nolan—and in the letter, he’ll need to impersonate his own father.
While Neil seems to be having immediate success with his own creative passion, it’s possible—as we’ve already seen—that he’s more interested in disobeying his father than in actually playing Puck; hence his plan to impersonate his father.
In his next class, Mr. Keating invites the students to present their poems. Knox reads a romantic poem about Chris, but is unable to finish it—he’s too embarrassed. Keating praises Knox and notes that the greatest poetry makes its listeners feel “immortal.”
Keating, who’s already extolled poetry for its romantic possibilities, is highly supportive of Knox’s poetry, and of his romantic aspirations.
It’s Todd’s turn to read his poem. Todd sadly admits that he hasn’t written a poem—he couldn’t bring himself to write anything. Keating nods and brings Todd to the front of the class. There, he instructs Todd to make the sound, “Yawp”—a reference, he explains, to Walt Whitman’s proclamation, “I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.” Todd is highly reluctant to make the “Yawp” sound, but with Keating’s encouragement, he does.
In this important scene, Keating tries to use surprise and even disorientation to help Todd be creative. Like the other Welton students, Todd is used to conforming with the rules—being reserved, polite, etc. Keating wants Todd to find his creativity by abandoning conformity, if only for a moment—and so he encourages Todd to “yawp.’
Keating points Todd to the photograph of Walt Whitman that hangs over the door, urging Todd to think of the first thing to come into his mind. Todd immediately says the man looks like “a sweaty-toothed madman.” Keating tells Todd to close his eyes and keep talking—with his help, Todd composes a poem about the “blanket that always leaves your feet cold,” growing louder and more confident as he goes on. When Todd falls silent, Keating smiles and whispers, “Don’t you forget this.” Neil and the other students begin to clap for Todd—and “for the first time,” Todd smiles confidently. As Todd sits down, Neil whispers, “See you at the cave this afternoon.”
Here, Keating proves to Todd himself that Todd is a creative, talented poet after all. Keating uses unconventional teaching methods to take Todd out of his comfort zone for a moment, allowing him to compose poetry without fear of failure. Notice that Keating isn’t giving Todd any specific information—in other words, he’s not performing an educator’s traditional duties. Instead, Keating helps Todd to harness his own innate talent; Keating himself is just the catalyst. The result of the exercise is immediately apparent: Todd gains new confidence in his own abilities, and—because he’s finally aware of his talent—it’s implied that he’s becoming brave enough to open up to his peers.
That afternoon, Neil, Todd, and the other Dead Poets show up at the cave. Charlie has brought his saxophone, and plays a composition he calls, “Poetrusic.” He plays very well—his parents made him take clarinet lessons, he explains. Suddenly, Knox bursts out, “If I don’t have Chris, I’ll kill myself!” He walks briskly out of the cave—and the other boys, worried, chase him back to campus. In the dorm, Knox uses the dorm phone to call Chris. She tells him, “I’m glad you called,” and invites him to a party at Chet’s house that weekend. She also tells him, “You can bring someone if you like.”
Knox raises the notion of suicide for the first time in the novel—he’s only being half-serious, but his words have some dark undertones, considering that the novel ends with an actual suicide. Also, Charlie notes that he’s good at the saxophone because his parents gave him music lessons. It’s important to keep in mind that, even as the Welton boys “rebel” against their parents and teachers, they demonstrate that they’ve been “raised right” (given music lessons, and all sorts of other luxuries for which they should be grateful).
Knox hangs up the phone triumphantly and tells his friends that he’s going to Chris and Chet’s party. Charlie is skeptical that Chris is interested in Knox at all, but Knox insists that he’s overjoyed that Chris was “thinking of me.” Neil mutters that he hopes Knox doesn’t get hurt.
Because he’s blinded by love (or lust), Knox interprets Chris’s ambiguous greeting to mean that she is, in fact, romantically interested in him.